Office politics: When does assertive become aggressive?

Are you the type who doesn't take any nonsense in the office and can put your position across in a frank and forthright manner?

Assertiveness skills are an essential quality for workers looking to rise through the ranks or manage a team.

Aggression tends to be about pent-up frustration and lack of boundaries around what's acceptable and what isn't.

Dan Gregory

Aggression, on the other hand, tends to be low on the must-have list in most offices. The distinction between the two behaviours, though, is not always clear.

Line? What line?

So how can managers ensure they remain on the right side of the line, and what are the signs that someone has gone too far?

Entrepreneur Karen James, a former senior executive in the banking and IT sectors, says a descent into aggression is easily spotted in others – and oneself.

"Their body language changes," James says.

"They're using very physical presence to express what they're trying to say, not their words. Banging a hand on the table to make a point."

Letting rip with a stream of four-letter words is another marker.

"Aggressive is when you start swearing in an aggressive way, and everyone knows what that sounds like," James says.


"People turn a different colour. Some people turn red or purple – a crazy, weird colour.

"I know I've switched when I swear, the minute I do it. As soon as I hear 'shit' come out it's moving from assertive to aggressive."

The fear factor

Provoking fear and anxiety, rather than positive change, is a retrospective sign that you've pushed it too far, says Bridget Loudon, the CEO of Expert360, an online marketplace for professional services. She admits to having done so inadvertently in the past with an under-performing employee.

"I came down pretty hard on them in a meeting that I had planned out and gave them some very stern feedback on their underperformance and a timeframe with which to turn it around," Loudon says.

"In retrospect, I should have given them some lighter, staged, assertive feedback – it was too much at once and the relationship did not recover.

"From that moment, I've always delivered performance feedback in a more relaxed setting so people get the point and are excited and motivated to turn it around rather than acting on fear."

Implied threat

An underlying threat beneath the banging and blustering tends to accompany aggressive conduct, according to behavioural researcher and The Gruen Transfer panelist Dan Gregory.

"Whether it's to damage a reputation or cause physical harm – there's an implied threat and consequence," Gregory says.

By contrast, assertive behaviour comes across as rational, sensible, firm and clear – and focused on issues, rather than individuals.

"Assertive is about being able to communicate in a clear, calm state and not be blaming but be able to raise the issue as a business issue without being emotional or personal," says Stephenson Mansell psychologist and executive coach Virginia Mansell.

"You need to put aside your personal agenda and think as a leader and about the impact on the business.

"Aggression tends to be about pent-up frustration and lack of boundaries around what's acceptable and what isn't."

Lose the attitude

The use of clear and non-emotive language to tell people what's expected of them is the hallmark of an assertive chief, Workplace Research principal Dr Julie West believes.

They will say 'I'd like you to work on this target' rather than informing you that you're lazy or treating you to a mouthful of harsh, pejorative or disrespectful language, she says.

A fish rots from the head

While some managers are attuned to their effect on others and will self regulate when they note an aggressive edge to their demeanours, others view aggression as part of  their personal communication style.

If your boss is in the latter category, expect to see their boorish behaviour permeate the organisation.

"You generally see aggression go down the chain," Dr West says.

Have you encountered aggression as a management technique? Do you believe aggressiveness has any relevance in the modern workplace?